United Airlines – don’t come fly with me!

A guest blog from our consumer PR expert Lucy Capaldo on this PR crisis.

It started badly, trailed off in the middle and the less that can be said about the end…

This week United Airlines has been globally vilified after aviation police officials violently removed a man from a plane at Chicago O’Hare international airport on Sunday.

In an incident captured on smartphones by passengers and posted to social media, the video went viral and suddenly the PR disaster is a global talking point. 

Airlines are legally allowed to deny ticketed passengers travel if a flight is overbooked. Passengers are entitled to either cash compensation or a similar flight landing near the same time. However, the (literally) heavy handed approach that United employed had far ranging consequences, not least an initial near $1 Billion dent to its share price on Tuesday.

In a perhaps ill thought out and knee jerk move, CEO Oscar Munoz praised employees following the incident:

“Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”

He also described the passenger who they forcibly removed as ‘disruptive and belligerent’.

Of course, this letter was also leaked to the media which further exacerbated public feeling toward United. In a quick about-turn, Munoz released a public apology, calling the incident “truly horrific”.

Later that day, Munoz said he was committed to “fix what’s broken so this never happens again”. He pledged to review the company’s policies for seeking volunteers to give up their seats, for handling oversold flights and for partnering with airport authorities and local law enforcement.

So, what should have United done differently?

It is sometimes easy to forget the simple fact that brands need to be transparent, especially when there are customers with smartphones itching to document your every move! On the United website it states its purpose as ‘Connecting People. Uniting The World’.

It then goes on to say “Every day, we help unite the world by connecting people to the moments that matter most. This shared purpose drives us to be the best airline for our employees, customers and everyone we serve.”

This purpose that isn’t ringing particularly true currently. The whole point of this is that a company’s behaviour needs to match its corporate values. It needs to be authentic, today’s customers are cannier and PR departments can’t control the messages in the way that they could 20 years ago, social media has meant the public can report news in real time and there is nowhere to hide now.

Munoz needs to step down as CEO. This could potentially be the only way that the brand can start to rekindle its brand reputation from the ashes by having a fresh head at the helm with a different perspective on things.

United’s initial reaction was a rookie mistake, when a passenger is injured and roughly man-handled off a plane in a shocking display of force the first response should be a deep and authentic apology. Regardless of whether this chap was a stubborn and slightly awkward passenger, the show of force was shocking and unjustifiable. In this situation, United should not have been pointing fingers and criticising the customer. It was its policy of overbooking seats that created the situation in the first place.

Next should come a clear explanation of what the company will be doing to prevent this from ever happening again. What procedures will be reviewed and changed? Is staff training required? Will United change its policy on overbooking from now onward? The public are not idiots, they want strong and firm action and changes to culture if they are going to consider travelling with United again.

Finally, PR disasters like this will take time to recover from, hence why a clear long-term PR strategy needs to be developed that puts customers at the forefront of what United does and how it operates as a business.

Interestingly I was thinking about airlines and how Ryanair manages to straddle that fine line between providing a no-frills service and making a profit, no matter how much we moan about the brand, its flights are always on time and cheap (if you travel light and don’t book extras).

CEO Michael O’Leary was well known for his blunt often hilarious quotes. However much his PR team have attempted to silence him in recent months, there was always something authentic about Ryanair- it does what it says on the tin and makes no apology for that. After all, today, brand transparency is key!